The Conservatives have an historic opportunity to turn Britain into a world leader in gambling harm prevention with a new Gambling Act

15 Jan

Derek Webb is campaigner and philanthropist funding Clean Up Gambling. This is a sponsored post by Clean Up Gambling.

As someone who has for the past decade supported and funded campaigns for gambling reform, I was pleased to see the article on this site by Lord Smith of Hindhead, whose policy recommendations should be easy for parliamentarians of all political stripes to coalesce around. This response elaborates on Lord Smith’s analysis.

Gambling reform covers a wide range of social, economic and cultural issues. Our campaign is a broad church, drawing together advocates from all political persuasions and parties, and many have argued that reform can only be achieved through a “whole government” cross-departmental approach to legislation and regulation. That is why it has been so disappointing that the review does not formally embrace all departments, instead creating a perception that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport – the department with responsibility for gambling – is marking its own homework. Both the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee identified weaknesses in Gambling Commission and DCMS oversight.

In addition to having the departments of Education and Health involved, I believe that it would have been preferable to involve both Treasury and the Ministry of Justice in the review. Gambling tax rates are an important tool in mitigating the socioeconomic consequences of gambling. Forms of gambling that are less harmful or create UK employment have a less negative net impact than offshore remote gambling.

The licensing objective of prevention of gambling being associated with crime, if interpreted logically, is being breached constantly. Persons stealing funds to continue gambling are being incarcerated, at a cost to their families and the taxpayer, with minimal assistance to avoid recidivism. At trial and at sentencing, relevant evidence regarding the conduct of the operators benefiting from the losses is not being provided to the defence. Operators in breach of anti-money-laundering laws are able to settle for amounts that are trivial to them.

Lord Smith correctly advocates that the review of gambling should be conducted fairly. Yet certain actors have a history of being unfair towards parliamentarians, the public and reformers. The offshore remote gambling sector has avoided aspects of UK taxation for 20 years, despite enjoying the benefits of holding UK licences. The whole remote gambling sector avoided gambling tax on their revenue until the introduction of the “tax at point of consumption” principle in 2014. Even then, the Gibraltar Betting and Gaming Association tried to use the EU courts to avoid this tax, and still now many of these operators avoid UK corporation tax.

It is also unfair to attribute equal weight to all “evidence”, as we learned during the campaign to reform FOBTs. The Association of British Bookmakers provided statistics that have now been “discredited” about the impact of a stake reduction on shops and jobs, which were included in a KPMG report. As well as these misleading statistics on job losses and shop closures, once the decision had been made, there were exaggerated claims regarding the length of time needed to change FOBT stakes. Incorrect statistics, speculation and a report that was not shared widely do not constitute credible evidence. Those acting in the gambling reform space do not provide evidence that is influenced by vested or commercial interests.

In the years campaigning against FOBTs, we exhibited at a few Conservative party conferences. The most common response from grassroots attendees was the desire to restrict gambling advertising. With so many vested interests in sport and media, areas for which DCMS has responsibility, we can only hope that this aspect of the review gets a fair hearing. Polling by Survation has consistently found the strongest support for gambling reform is among Tory voters who supported Brexit.

This Conservative government has an historic opportunity to turn Britain into a world leader in gambling harm prevention, but to do so DCMS has to be prepared to act on the evidence by going as far as establishing a new Gambling Act. This government should not want to see a rerun of what happened with FOBTs. Ineffective industry-funded research and initiatives were used as an excuse to delay reform from 2013 to 2019. This time around, inadequate action on the part of DCMS could turn a potential positive for this government into a negative, by ensuring that gambling stays in the political spotlight for years to come.